Through a Lens Darkly: Berlin Review

Sundance Film Festival
A documentary that offers a lot of names and images but not a lot of insight.

Thomas Allen Harris's documentary is inspired by the book "Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present" by the film's producer, Deborah Willis.

The history of black photographers and subjects in the U.S. is more skimmed over than explored in Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, from director Thomas Allen Harris (That’s My Face, Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela).

Inspired by the pioneering book Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present by Deborah Willis, Through a Lens Darkly consists of countless photographs and talking heads that describe the emergence of black photographers and black subjects in America since the dawn of the art in the mid-19th century, mixed with Harris’s personal connection to photography and reminiscences about his family. It all adds up to a rather superficial affair that could serve as an introduction for the uninitiated but this Sundance and Berlin premiere will otherwise mainly appeal to educational broadcasters and specialized events and venues. A special roadshow and interactive project, the Digital Diaspora Family Reunion, allows families to share their own photos as well.

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There’s something slightly unkosher about several recent documentaries on photography, which feature great stories that need to be told but are made by people that have more than a passing interest in promoting their subject. The recent Toronto title Finding Vivian Maier, for example, was directed by John Maloof, who also sells Maier’s work commercially. Similarly, this new documentary is not only “inspired” by the groundbreaking book of Willis, who made something visible that was missing from official histories of U.S. photography, but she’s also a producer, appears as a talking head who’s much lauded by her peers and she personally got Harris, who is her protégé of sorts, to direct. Though the makers were no doubt well intentioned, it’s hard in cases such as these to be completely sure if some kind of pro-Willis bias might not have accidentally slipped in (there are certainly no voices that seem to disagree with her on-screen).

Like in his other work, the starting point for Harris, the brother of influential photographic artist Lyle Ashton Harris, is a personal one, as he recounts the photography obsession of his grandfather. The director’s theories about the family albums of black families, and what they can reveal as well as hide, are directly tested on his own family, though the connection between these concepts and Harris’s photographic evidence is, at times, tenuous.

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By far the most interesting part of the documentary is the treasure trove of images unearthed from countless sources that trace, in roughly chronological order, the emergence of not only black subjects in photographs but especially the eye of black photographs on their own lives and communities (though Harris sometimes finds it hard to tell the two apart).

Starting quite appropriately with Jules Lion, who opened a daguerreotype studio in New Orleans in 1840, only a year after the technique had been invented, the film ticks off a whole list of amateur and professional photographers including such luminaries as the former slave-turned-statesman Frederick Douglass, “the most photographed American of the 19th century” who combated received ideas about the black population through countless self-portraits.

Both these men would deserve documentary portraits of their own, as does the fascinating story of the American Negro photographic exhibition at the 1900 Paris World Fair, which showed the prosperity and emancipation of (at least a part of) the black population of the U.S. to the rest of the world at a fair at which most African and other colonial nations were represented by clichés that pandered to Western ideas about white superiority. 

But there’s little time to delve very deeply into any of these fascinating subjects and the film’s often more akin to a slide show interspersed with numerous talking heads, including historians and artists, that offer very brief observations on the work shown.

The commentaries are much too short and fragmented, and the speakers way too many (the director started shooting this project way back in 2005) to form any kind of coherent or persuasive argument. In an effort to still try and glue the enterprise together, Harris himself provides a flowery voice-over that’s more distracting than insightful and occasionally suggesting things such as a certain photographer clearly understanding “the power of his images,” an assertion that sounds seductive but is hard to prove unless there’s autobiographical material to back up such claims.

Visually, the film is quite coherent, despite having been shot over such a long period. Artily shot inserts show people holding landmark photographs, which adds an imaginative touch to a subject that would otherwise be quite static.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (New Frontiers) / Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)

Production company: Chimpanzee Productions
Director: Thomas Allen Harris
Screenwriters: Don Perry, Paul Carter Harrison
Producers: Deborah Willis, Ann Bennet, Don Perry
Executive producer: Kimberly Steward
Director of photography: Martina Radwan
Music: Vernon Reid, Miles Jay
Editors: K.A. Miille, Matthew Cohn
Sales: BGP Film
No rating, 83 minutes.